12th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition

Outside the Venice Biennale’s imposing Arsenale complex venue, an event poster depicts a a loosely-assembled group of people looking around them, many gazing upward, focused intently on the wonder that is the Pantheon in Rome. They are gathered, here, for the architecture; they meet in architecture – or rather they occupy architectural space together. More than likely they talk, exchange views and impressions – perhaps exclusively on the nearly 2000-year-old iconic Roman architectural marvel.
But this does not constitute a “meeting” as such; if by meeting we mean, as this year’s Biennale Director Kazuyo Sejima intended, an exchange; social interaction wherein architecture is both stage and subject. At its best, architecture has the power to draw people, inspire and instigate action, serve as the setting, the forum, for the social interchange-event that unfolds – amidst architecture.
Setting the overall tone, approach and the theme-title of the 12th Venice Biennale International Architecture Exhibition, Sejima pronounces, in typically articulate and simple, firmly-grounded expression, that ‘People Meet in Architecture’. Here exchange is key; for exchange requires real participation, genuine engagement, most particularly and importantly on the viewer’s side.
Rather than touch-screens, high-tech headgear and the standard host of so-called interactive schemes intended to bring us closer to the subject/experience at hand – architecture – visitors are instead challenged to actively locate themselves in the vast array of structural and spatial experiences that announce, as a collective whole, that architecture is alive and well; and that the representation and communication of architecture is charged with life, imagination and inspiration.

Looking back, the 2008 Venice Architectural Biennale Out There: Architecture Beyond Building, curated by Aaron Betsky, was for many largely beyond architecture: somewhere between design and architecture, and void of the issues, strengths, and merits of either. The show at the Arsenale gave us Mobile Chinatown by MAD, Furnivehicle by Atelier Bow-Wow, Recycled Toy Furniture by Greg Lynn, a naked saw-playing performance, an acrylic Lotus sculpture by Zaha Hadid Architects and similar mischievous fare.
Even timing wasn’t on Betsky’s side, with a strangely whimsical, playful, even fantastical feeling about the entire event and its individual exhibition components – immediately on the heels of the monumental Wall Street crash and a host of very real, very now, fundamental issues and concerns.
Naturally there were also some exhibitions of thematically strong and focused substance, but too many simply extended beyond the realm of their creator’s command and expertise –and alienated audiences in the process.

Venue Venezia
While the Biennale is comprised of venues and events spread out over much of Venice, we’re really talking about two enormous venues – the Arsenale and the Giardini – which attract the vast majority of visitors and attention. Most everything else is largely extra, marginal, and requires a special interest or agenda to move people off the very beaten track to locate and visit them. And come they do – by 2006 the two major venues combined were drawing audiences of more than 130,000 visitors over the roughly three months (end-August to end-November) the event is open.
The architecture section of the Biennale was formally established in 1980, although architecture had been a part of the art biennale – also held on alternate years – since 1968. The lush, green, path-lined Giardini area houses 30 permanent national pavilions, many of them built between the early decades of the 20th century and the 1950s, with no single format guiding pavilion management. The Aperto section, on the other hand, is a more recent format-arrival from 1980, now held in the adjacent sprawling red-brick Arsenale complex.

Propaganda and Posturing / Propaganda and National Interest
National pavilions embody the best and the worst of the wider yet specific representation format and are, as such (in relation to the Aperto/Arsenale), both the compelling favourite and the aggravating antagonist in the larger biennale framework. And in this post-modern, post-ideology age of global information exchange, such displays of blatant nationalist propaganda as exhibited by this year’s survey of recent school builds (entitled Schools) at the Finnish pavilion (“Education has always been highly respected…, we embrace the principle…, the right to free schooling”) are as curious as they are lame, as confounding as they are unengaging.
Here the land of balanced, intuitive taste and innovative expert eccentricity wanders lost in the forest and becomes mired in the Canadian syndrome – taking no chances, trying to please everyone and in the process, pleasing nothing and no one. This time out the Canadians – at the other end of the extremes here – created big buzz over Philip Beesley’s Hylozoic Ground, a forest of electrified, illuminated acrylic fronds that move as though breathing. All, however, is not well at the Canadian pavilion either, for the “people” and “meeting” element are, arguably, largely absent, and better belong to Betsky’s Beyond-theme of two years back.
Again, oddly enough it is the Dutch too who take part in a flag-waving brave-new-way-forward demonstration with their “Vacant” pavilion exhibition, which highlights the huge potential of the country’s temporarily unoccupied space in making the Netherlands one of the top-five knowledge economies in the world. While it still smacks some of propaganda, justifying and harnessing architecture as a valid mechanism, it makes a strong point, and is beautifully presented. The exhibition maps Amsterdam’s temp-vacant cityscape wall-to-wall in vibrant blue foam suspended close to the ceiling, with the entire scheme mirrored on the back wall in graphite sketches and black thread diagrams.

Back to Basics
Hungarian curators Andor Wesselényi-Garay and Marcel Ferencz have taken Kazuyo Sejima at her word and created a fantastical drawing studio of sorts, strung with dense curtain-like swathes of pencils dangling from the ceiling that act as corridors through which we navigate their marvellously neo-romantic pavilion. Projected on the wall of the main room we find architects drawing – sketching, composing, planning, doodling. Filmed in black & white, practitioners from the lesser known to Dekleva-Gregoric, to the widely celebrated Tony Fretton and Zvi Hekker, take pen or pencil to paper and talk us through the very personal process of drawing architecture.
And they’re not alone in the studio – nor the basics.

Studio Mumbai (India) walked away with one of the jury’s three Special Mentions for their Arsenale installation Work Place, a beautiful dream-like array of large scale mock-ups, models, material studies, sketches and drawings that reveals the process of learning through making. The hundred-member firm, specialising in working with natural and local materials and limited resources, was chosen by Sejima for their sensitive approach and careful consideration of place and architecture.
The Belgian pavilion, by art collective Rotor, takes a different, but equally straightforward approach. Assembling used, well-worn components from public buildings – from stairs and stair rails to tiles and threadbare carpets – taken from their usual, in-use context and elegantly hung as if in a gallery, this smartly collected exhibition offers up deeply-charged ‘wear’ as way of reading buildings.
And Tokyo Metabolizing, the Japanese pavilion exhibition curated by Ryue Nishizawa, suggests in a marvellously subtle yet convincing technique, that the long-abandoned Japanese Metabolism movement of the 1950s has in many ways come to materialise in the country’s hyper-urban mega-cityscape. Contemporary Tokyo, Nishizawa offers, is continually changing like a living organism before our eyes, revealing the birth of an urban landscape which has never appeared before. Various rooms, cut-away house sections and adjoining metaphorical gardens bloom and propagate, densely and methodically arranged and richly suggestive of the place they both symbolise and occupy in a living, urban organism.

Sejima – Sense & Sensibility
For her (very large) part, curator Sejima – the Biennale’s first woman curator ever, and together with SANAA partner Ryue Nishizawa, recently awarded prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize 2010 recipient – is to be commended for her masterful, sweeping, smart and sensitive approach, for her choices of themes, work and offices to show in both the Arsenale and the Exposition Pavilion (Palazzo delle Esposizioni). As practiced and reflected in her own accomplished architectural design work, Sejima is acutely sensitive to space – as much as she is to the built structures that both inhabit and create it.
Here, particularly in the voluptuously voluminous Arsenale building, we find an array of compelling spaces and poetic yet unsentimental expressions of space as environment, as ambience, as structure, as vibrant void.
Canadian installation artist Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet is a moving celebration of space and sound, using Renaissance choral music by Thomas Tallis. Sung by 40 voices and played back through 40 loudspeakers arranged in a large oval configuration, the work allows the listener to feel – seated on a simple bench or moving around the sound-space – the spatial construction of the piece. We as listeners are literally overwhelmed when the wave of the entire 40-piece choir singing at the same time rolls around and over us.
Similarly, Tetsuo Kondo + Transsolar’s Cloudscapes achieves the (near) impossible by creating three distinct atmospheric layers indoors. Using mechanically-controlled heat and humidity the work applies physical principles at the building scale to produce cool/dry, warm/humid, and hot/dry planes, taking tremendous advantage of the triple-height ceiling of the Arsenale. Walk up the suspended spiral iron catwalk and you’ve entered an entirely different space, with a spectacular view – and physical sensation – of the atmospheric expanse below.

Uncompromising Ambition
Back at the main Exposition Pavilion in Giardini, space and transparency drive this year’s Golden Lion award for Best Project. Junya Ishigami + Associates’s architecture as air: study for château la coste explores a new form of transparency that goes beyond the density and opacity of a building’s structural components. The installation – constructed entirely out of spindly carbon fibre pillars – is a physical model of a building planned for somewhere in Europe, and enables the viewers to perceive the otherwise invisible void. So light and fragile it actually collapsed – twice: the first time a week prior to the opening by a curious cat whom Ishigami, laughing in the telling of it, later discovered on a surveillance camera video.
In a parallel development, the Croatians and their hugely ambitious entry too suffered the collapse of their exhibition entry, though in this instance at the hands of a fickle sea. Not having a pavilion of their own, they simply, boldly, decided to build and bring one instead. Constructed on an existing barge and towed by tugboat from a shipyard in Kraljevica to Rijeka, the pavilion – a collaboration of 14 offices, welded from 30 tons of wire mesh in more than 40 layers – was to moor at the main pier in Venice for the opening of the Biennale. Unfortunately it was forced to turn back when rough seas caused excessive damage to the structure. Yet the captivating project – and the extensive accompanying documentation – are testament to the value of aspiring work and vision.

Achievement Awarded
In something of a surprise development, the Golden Lion for best National Participation was awarded to the first-time Biennale participant Kingdom of Bahrain (curators Noura Al-Sayeh and Fuad Al-Ansari) for its rather oddly articulated yet evocative exhibit Reclaim. Traditional structures where fishermen and other local tradespeople gather and relax, now fast disappearing, were bought, dismantled, transported to Venice and re-constructed exactly as they looked, felt and served back home.
Not at all surprising, however, was the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement award conferred on Rem Koolhaas, with the jury citing his having “expanded the possibilities of architecture”. In particular, the citation points to his focus on the exchanges between people in space, creating buildings that bring people together; and ultimately wielding an influence that extends well beyond architecture.
His most recent project/research work with his widely recognised and much celebrated Amsterdam-based OMA office takes the very traditional form of easel-like placards outlining the office’s latest theme-issue: developing existing built spaces. Never one to stand still, and always posited in opposition to the trend of the day (in which he likely had a big hand at the time of its emergence), the OMA/Koolhaas show (and it is a show, albeit one of substance) is, typically, ripe with loud, colourful and provocative pronouncements and denouncements both.

Moving Architecture
Film and video emerge, alongside the very material theme-component of this year’s Biennale, as the medium of choice through which subjects and treatments are materialised and communicated. Film is everywhere. The hugely-extensive Arsenale pavilion show essentially opens with Wim Wenders’s If Buildings Could Talk, a sweeping, visually stunning widescreen investigation of the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, the recently inaugurated lusciously futuristic building designed by SANAA as the flagship of the prestigious EPFL - Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Back at the Giardini, most every expansive wall surface of the French pavilion is animated with footage of various urban landscapes, rituals, events and virtual fly-over urban planning surveys; meanwhile architects are still busy drawing – on video – at the Hungarian pavilion. And the Portuguese no place like - 4 houses 4 films works to represent four different architectural views and cultures in the way we think and create architecture.
Filipa César’s film on álvaro Siza Vieira’s Saal-Bouça in Porto proves a beautiful and moving document of a building, a place and a time, and feels eerily otherwordly, with Siza leaving a message on the filmmaker’s answering machine as very personal voice-over. Similarly, João Salaviza’s warmly melancholic view on Manuel and Francisco Aires Mateus’s ‘Houses in Comporta’ Grandola, with their sand floors and rough, weathered wood facades and white curtains billowing in the late-afternoon breeze amidst the surrounding dunes, is sensitive testament to the power of film as a highly evocative medium through which to capture and communicate architecture.

Out There
How many, however, will actually go and see the Portuguese pavilion, located not in the Giardini nor Arsenale complexes but at the silent and stately Università Ca’ Foscari, a little ways from the Ponte dell’Accademia bridge yet worlds, in effect, away? Mid-afternoon on a beautiful sunny opening Saturday the place was deserted, with more staff than visitors over an entire hour’s visit there.
Slovenia’s entry, All Shades of Green by studios AKKA and studiobotas at Galerija A+A, too occupies a space not far from the Ponte dell’Accademia bridge in the corner of a fine yet relatively quiet square. The exhibition relies on essentially standard techniques – photos, drawings, mapping on paper, lightboards and transparent panels – in presenting largely conceptual landscape architecture issues and schemes. While smartly arranged, it lacks a certain quality of communicated engagement, leaving a substantial distance remaining between viewer and subject, between man, nature and the living human environment; between the “people” and the “meeting”.

Ambition Reaffirmed
Anton Garcia-Abril & Ensemble Studio’s Balancing Act (Spain) is composed of but two structural lines in the longitudinal space of the Arsenale building, hinging on and developing from the interference caused by generating a diagonal incision cutting an existing line of the old structure – with two immense steel beams.
The installation is all but entirely, marvellously, and intentionally overwhelming. It is an immensely strong, singular, focused gesture. Simple and acutely articulated, it is a thoughtful, provocative expression that invites, indeed begs, even demands consideration and engagement – as do all of the decisively stronger works calling, vying for our attention.
While not perhaps the “best” or categorically most well-considered on-theme socially-engaged installation it represents, in the extreme, the strongest argument for a more individual (as distinct from personal) expression; and against the larger, over-administered and impossibly, impotently balanced representation process best (worst) typified by the big-message – small-engagement exhibitions. Because it is in the strong, ambitious gestures that require more – more involvement, more expectations, more consideration – where people meet in architecture.